Challenge of data prospecting in oil sector

Richa Mishra | Updated on January 08, 2021

Availability of quality geo-scientific data in adequate quantity is the key to successful hydrocarbon exploration   -  THE HINDU

To give a fillip to exploration and production, merely professionalising the National Data Repository may not be enough

The biggest bottleneck in India’s oil and gas exploration business are the 3As and an R — availability, accessibility, authenticity, and reliability of quality geo-scientific data.

If this not addressed, any amount of policy tweaking to incentivise the sector will not work. And who would know it better than Dhamendra Pradhan, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, who is in his second term; Pradhan headed the Ministry in the Narendra Modi-led government’s first term too (2014).

To create a dynamic ecosystem to encourage exploration, Pradhan’s team proposes to transform the National Data Repository (NDR) into a professional organisation — an autonomous body, in the form of a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 — but retaining the brand name ‘National Data Repository’.

It was during Pradhan’s first tenure that NDR was operationalised to provide a one-stop state-of-the-art digital platform for systematic and reliable data reporting and exchange among exploration and production players and the academia.

But it seems the NDR’s full potential remained untapped and fresh locations still remain distant to India’s oil and gas hunting story. The question is, why? What went wrong with NDR?

If one goes by what those in India’s upstream (exploration and production of hydrocarbons) business say, the current NDR has got two problems:

First and foremost, it is mostly legacy data, compiled at a time when things were done on paper. More a Russian system, as it is termed — no soft copies only paper. To convert them into a soft copy and do comparisons with similar data in other basins is difficult and time consuming. Over time, technology has developed and there’s new software that is more interactive for comparing data and taking investments decisions.

One must remember that the objective of an NDR is not simple to quantify — like profit and loss account. It must be a service that is qualitative. Even though people manning the NDR are good, the service available isn’t quite fulfilling.

But will turning the NDR into an autonomous body work? Unless you know what the difficulties are and find out why the problems exist, it would be difficult to make any new model a success.

There are also issues like: what is the role of NDR, what is the message that it wants to convey and, above all, how will those who are manning it be judged on whether they are doing a fair job or not. Are we not providing a solution before even doing the preliminary work? Finding out why it is failing to perform and how best can it meet its objective is the first step. Putting a structure is the second step.

Currently, all data acquired from exploration and production activities in sedimentary basins of the country get stored in the NDR in the Directorate-General of Hydrocarbons (DGH), the upstream technical arm of the Ministry. Most of the data available are from public sector players like ONGC and Oil India. Of course, some recent inputs have come from private sector players, too.

This could also make players entering the sector for the first time uncomfortable as far as reliability of the data is concerned. After all, the same public sector entities are also competing with them.

Citing the issue of trust deficit, an observer said that in the case of Discovered Small Fields (DSFs), the data put out were ONGC resources and these were areas surrendered by PSUs. So, will prolific areas be given out?

Besides, a much larger question is about the DGH, under which the NDR falls. The DGH is mostly manned by ONGC, Oil India and other PSU officials. This also adds to the trust deficit. There is a demand to make the DGH an independent entity having its own cadre and not a revolving door for public sector manpower.

Lack of quality data

Availability of quality geo-scientific data in adequate quantity is the key to successful hydrocarbon exploration and the NDR is a key enabler of Open Acreage Licensing Programme (OALP) bidding rounds under the Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licensing Policy and DSF bid rounds.

Currently, the NDR provides GIS-enabled portal to display available acreages for OALP bidding rounds along with active blocks, no-go areas and relevant subsurface information. Users can view or request data for analysis and evaluation and submit Expressions of Interest for carrying out exploration and production activities. The NDR does provide the gateway to selection of blocks and making sound investment decisions in the sector.

It is a known fact that hydrocarbon exploration is inherently a high-cost, high-risk business and the risk increases when working in new frontiers with limited exploration data. Companies try to mitigate this risk and uncertainty by developing an exhaustive understanding of subsurface geology for a well-targeted and strategised exploration programme.

Under the given circumstances and given the compelling need to accelerate exploration, the Ministry has been thinking about an institutionalised approach to generate exploration data to significantly de-risk the exploration business in the country. The NDR will enable acquisition and dissemination of exploration data to all stakeholders.

So what is needed is to scale up efficiency in data management, share data with a wider section of stakeholders, promote exploration activities by providing latest data to update resource mapping, trigger quality data generation and mature into a database platform where data science methods including big data analytics can be used to gain subsurface understanding and mitigate risks in exploration.

The objective of the proposed autonomous body will be to perform functions defined by the government including under the NDR Data Policy.

It is expected to generate, validate, archive, preserve, reproduce and disseminate all data and samples relating to prospecting, exploration, development and production of hydrocarbons.

Also, it is expected to promote and facilitate data disclosure, data reporting, data exchange and data trading between the Central Government or its nominee and other parties; create and maintain a modern platform for effective application of data analytics, reporting, mapping, and visualisation techniques; and encourage new prospecting, exploration, development and production activities by providing high quality and reliable geo-scientific and engineering data.

But just transforming the NDR into a next-generation repository of national exploration and production data equipped with latest IT infrastructure, may not work.

What is also needed is to make DGH an independent body with independent technical and financial powers so that it is not constrained in decision-making.

A question that the government needs to answer is who exactly promotes exploration and production in India. At present, it is everybody and nobody.

Published on January 08, 2021

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